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Maxine Peake - The Pendle Witches and The 1612 Underture

Maxine Peake had always been aware of the Pendle witch trials when she was growing up in Bolton. The actress and star of television dramas such as Silk and Shameless never expected, however, to be spending Halloween performing a politically charged spoken-word reclamation of the seventeenth century trials of nine women and one man from the north of England who were executed for apparently murdering ten people using unspecified powers of witchcraft.

Yet that's exactly what Peake will be doing tonight at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. As part of the gallery's latest after-hours event, Halloween: By Night, Peake fronts experimental electronic pop collective, The Eccentronic Research Council to perform Pendle-based spoken-word suite, 1612 Underture.

The Pendle witches had always been part of the folklore when I was growing up,” Peake says. “No one had ever explained to me their story properly, so I just deducted there was a hill not too far away where witches on broomsticks met to cause mayhem, which I thought was just a fairytale.
It was only in my teens when my mother told me there was a woman at her place of work who was a descendant of the Pendle witch, Alice Nutter, so I bought myself a book on the subject and started to read up."

Peake's involvement in 1612 Underture came about after being contacted by Adrian Flanagan, who, alongside former member of The All Seeing I, Dean Honer, forms the backbone of ERC.

We had a brief conversation about our respective music tastes,” Peake remembers, “and then he enquired if I would appear in his video, which involved donning a rabbit suit and charging around Kersal Moor in Salford. We stayed in touch, mainly because I was hoping to steal the film footage from him while he was sleeping. Then the next thing I know I'm embroiled in some Kraut, prog, psychedelic, electronic fiasco.”

Flanagan too was fascinated by the Pendle witch trials, and, following a road trip the pair took to the villages around Pendle Hill, Flanagan wrote 1612 Underture just as the 2011 UK riots were taking place.
You read about these women,” he says, “and you see how horrifically they we're treated, and how they were basically being used as scapegoats by the government. Then you start seeing parallels with what's going on now. It wont be long before this government will be taking us all to Gallows Hill for having an opinion."
While 1612 Underture was released as an album in 2012 to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the trials, it was never meant to be performed live.

“I find the work with The ERC extremely exposing,” Peake says. “In theatre you are to include the audience under the guise that you're trying to get them to believe you've forgotten they are there. Speaking directly to them is very, very surreal for me. It is far more personal and far more difficult. I think it takes a certain personality to be a great front person, and I think I'm cut from a very different cloth. I wanted to act to get far away from who I am.”

Despite Peake's reservations, her collaboration with ERC remains ongoing. A new album has been recorded, while a single, a homage to electronic music pioneer and BBC Radiophonic Workshop stalwart Delia Derbyshire entitled Maxine's Dream, has just been released. Peake has also branched out further from acting, and, following her first radio play, broadcast last year, a new work, about Anne Scargill's occupation of Parkside Colliery in 1993, is broadcast on Radio 4 on November 4th. As with1612 Underture, Peake is putting the hidden history of women to the fore.

"Women are still victimised for being different,” she says, “for not conforming. We like to bandy the word 'mad' about when describing a woman who may be being outspoken or passionate. If a woman has a strong sense of her sexuality she's still labelled a slag or some such. I feel we still have to battle to be heard to be taken seriously. If a woman has an opinion she's described as feisty. This infuriates me. If a woman is being strong-willed, outspoken, brave , emotional and fearless then she is being a woman, nothing more, nothing less.”

Witch-hunts, in Peake's opinion, are as prevalent as they ever were.

“There are woman in this country who are being murdered in honour killings,” she observes, “female babies being murdered because they are not male. The biggest witch hunt at the moment is the Tory party's demonisation of the working class, whipping middle England up into a frenzy with the myth of hoards of scroungers bleeding the taxpayer dry, of immigrants coming over to take their jobs and homes. The bedroom tax, the gagging law, the list goes on and on."

The Eccentronic Research Council featuring Maxine Peake will perform 1612 Underture as part of Halloween: By Night, which also features a performance by Blake Morrison, at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, October 31st, 7.15-10pm. 1612 Underture and Maxine's Dream are available now. Witches and Wicked Bodies runs at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until November 3rd.

The Herald, October 31st 2013



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